Duels and Deception by Cindy Anstey

Duels and DeceptionInformation

Goodreads: Duels and Deception
Series: None
Source: Publisher
Published: April 11, 2017

Official Summary

Miss Lydia Whitfield, heiress to the family fortune, has her future entirely planned out. She will run the family estate until she marries the man of her late father’s choosing, and then she will spend the rest of her days as a devoted wife. Confident in those arrangements, Lydia has tasked her young law clerk, Mr. Robert Newton, to begin drawing up the marriage contracts. Everything is going according to plan.

Until Lydia—and Robert along with her—is kidnapped. Someone is after her fortune and won’t hesitate to destroy her reputation to get it. With Robert’s help, Lydia strives to keep her family’s good name intact and expose whoever is behind the devious plot. But as their investigation delves deeper and their affections for each other grow, Lydia starts to wonder whether her carefully planned future is in fact what she truly wants…

Review

Like Anstey’s first novel, Love, Lies and Spies, Duels and Deception is a light-hearted Regency romance that will keep you vastly amused if you like spirited girls and swoon-worthy guys in historical fiction.  The novel is, in some senses, ridiculous.  The dialogue seems a bit overdone with the author’s attempts to make it period, and the action is certainly on the absurd end (kidnappings and conspiracies and scandals, oh my!).  To top it off, the whole plot is incredibly predictable.  And yet…it’s just so.much.fun.

Anstey, I have to admit, is just good at what she does.  I don’t normally read books I would call “fluffy,” yet that’s exactly what Anstey’s fiction is, and I love it.  You can tell she had such a good time writing it that you can’t help but have a good time reading it.  Part of me can’t even say that this novel and her first are distinctly different (they are but they aren’t), but I don’t care.  I was entertained, and I kept turning the pages.

The highlight is really the plot, but the characters help make the book, as well. Anstey write heroines that don’t quite conform to the expected gender roles of their time, but they pay just enough deference to propriety that they don’t seem unrealistic.  And she is fabulous at writing romantic love interests who are thoughtful, intelligent, and brave.  Secondary characters ranging from good friends to absurd family members to nasty villains round out the cast.

I have no idea if Anstey plans to continue churning out Regency novels in this vein, but I’ll keep reading them if she does.

4 stars Briana

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson

INFORMATION

Goodreads: The Mirk and Midnight Hour
Series:  Strands #2
Source: Library
Published: 2014

SUMMARY

With her twin brother dead and her father gone off to fight for the South, Violet Dancey is trying to hold her life together.  Unfortunately, her new stepmother is addicted to laudanum, her stepsister Sunny is an obnoxious flirt, and her cousin Dorian seems charming but could mean trouble.  Then Violet and her young cousin Seeley find an injured Union soldier in the woods.  Unexpectedly, he’s handsome and intelligent, nothing like she thought a Yankee would be.  But why are the mysterious VanZeldts caring from him?  Will he be a victim of their dark powers?  A retelling of “Tam Lin.”

Review

Jane Nickerson’s The Mirk and Midnight Hour reimagines the Scottish tale of “Tam Lin” in Civil War-era Mississippi.  Her interest in the Southern Gothic combined with a story of forbidden love makes the story intriguing.  Unfortunately, the plot feels a little messy and the depiction of slavery indicates that, even though Nickerson seems to be attempting to deal with the difficulties inherent in discussing such a terrible topic, she ultimately is unable to avoid reinforcing stereotypes or to avoid the influence of the narrative of the Lost Cause.

[Spoilers Ahead for the Rest of the Review.] The uncomfortable depiction of slavery and Black individuals is in, fact, part of the reason the plot feels like such a mess.  In Nickerson’s retelling of “Tam Lin,” the fairies are replaced by voodoo practitioners.  Because they are invoking mysterious powers, Nickerson wants to depict them as strange and other-worldly.  And, of course, as villainous.  This gets incredibly awkward since it means that the people of the town  see the African men and women as something other than people.  They move strangely, are associated with snakes. and are referred to as (by another Black character) “People-things” to indicate that they are not normal.  In a book where race and racial politics must always be at the forefront, associating Black characters with dark powers and wrongness is…well, it feels wrong.  Furthermore,the voodoo really doesn’t add much to the plot but seems like it was awkwardly tacked on to a standard Union-Confederate forbidden romance story.  So these depictions and their problematic implications could have easily be edited out and improved the book in more ways than one.

The book, however, seems unsure exactly how to deal with racial politics even while it seems clear it knows that it has to.  For example, Nickerson seems to realize that depicting a young woman whose family owns slaves and making that woman the heroine is going to be a problem.  She attempts to deal with this by making Violet and her slave Laney friends.  Violet and Laney grew up together, share secrets, even do the household chores together.  Violet loves Laney’s baby Cubby and babysits him.  There are two nods given to this inexplicable arrangement.  Violet muses randomly that if she were Laney she would run to the Union lines despite the friendship.  And Laney reminds Violet at one point that she cannot, in fact, drop Master Seeley’s formal title when speaking about him.  Otherwise, however, slavery is depicted as fairly benign.  In fact, the neighbor and her slave Jubal seem to have had feelings for each other and are great friends, too!

There is one conversation in which the question of slavery is more explicitly addressed.  Violet’s Union soldier explains he is fighting to end a great wrong.  Violet halfheartedly gives a few sentences about slavery being necessary to the economy (like she would really care), Abraham owning slaves in the Bible, and her kind treatment to her slaves.  Ultimately, however, the sense is that Violet just really hasn’t thought about slavery that much and simply accepts it.  Perhaps that’s the scariest depiction one could give of the insidiousness of the evil of slavery, but the book doesn’t follow this up except to have Violet suddenly have an equally half-hearted repentance.  She apologizes to Laney for having Laney as a slave.  Laney, perhaps realizing that she is still a slave, that the apology doesn’t mean much as a result, and that as a slave she cannot be honest about her emotions with her masters, seems to forgive Violet like it’s all no big deal.

Add to this the inclusion of a Black man who attempts rape and the stereotypical stronger-than-average Black man and the book gets increasingly more troubling.  Yes, Black characters should be able to be presented in a wide range of ways, should get to be the good guys or the villains or the people in-between.  However, when you add these two depictions to everything else going on in the book, it really seems like the books perhaps just is not aware of the implications of some of the characterizations.  I can only conclude that there is a lack of knowledge because the explanation for the presence of the voodoo practitioners in Mississippi is that they voluntarily moved there as free people because they thought they would blend in.  They could have moved to anywhere in the world and they chose to move to a place where they would be hated and despised and would not have legal freedoms?  It makes no sense, but the underlying implication is that slavery must not be such a big deal if free Africans would purposely move to the Civil War South!

Probably this story should have been written as a standard romance without the addition of the voodoo practitioners.  And probably if Nickerson wanted Violet to be sympathetic, she should have made Violet a secret Union sympathizer and non-slave owner from the start.  There are complex questions that could have been addressed, such as Violet’s blithe ignorance of the evils of slavery and what that tells us about how seemingly ordinary people can do something so wrong, but, if they are not going to be addressed, it’s going to make the book an extremely troubling read.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee (ARC Review)

Epic Crush of Genie LoInformation

Goodreads: The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
Series: None
Source: Publisher
Publication Date: August 8, 2017

Official Summary

The struggle to get into a top-tier college consumes sixteen-year-old Genie Lo’s every waking thought. But when her sleepy Bay Area town comes under siege from hell-spawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are suddenly and forcefully rearranged.

Her only guide to the demonic chaos breaking out around her is Quentin Sun, a beguiling, maddening new transfer student from overseas. Quentin assures Genie she is strong enough to fight these monsters, for she unknowingly harbors an inner power that can level the very gates of Heaven.

Genie will have to dig deep within herself to summon the otherworldly strength that Quentin keeps talking about. But as she does, she finds the secret of her true nature is entwined with his, in a way she could never have imagined…

Review

I don’t normally read a lot of urban/paranormal fantasy, so The Epic Crush of Genie Lo was an unusual choice for me.  I’ve seen reviews that focus on the fact that the novel is inspired by Chinese mythology, and it’s true that the author draws on and explains characters and events from the great classic Journey to the West.  However, the focus of the novel is really on Genie and a mysterious new student at her high school going around California’s Bay Area slaying demons.  So…urban fantasy.  And while that’s not my preferred genre, I was attracted to Genie’s non-demon-slaying life, where’s she just a teenage girl doing her best in high school to get accepted into a great college.  A determined teen with real world problems is something I can always get behind in YA.

I’ve commented before on my dissatisfaction with the way the college application process is frequently represented in young adult novels.  Far too often, college applications are a side concern, barely mentioned in the book or on the character’s mind—and yet by the end of the story the character is accepted into his/her first choice college with apparently little effort, doubt, or issue.  (And, yes, that first choice school is usually somewhere incredibly selective.)

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo gets the college application process right.  Genie really, really wants to go to a top-ranked school—and she is single-mindedly focused on that goal.  She worries about her grades and her standardized test scores.  She picks extracurricular activities she thinks will look good to admissions committees.  She even hires a college counselor who helps her revise her personal statement and get all her application materials right.  Now, obviously this is not the way all or even most students approach college applications.  (I certainly didn’t.)  But it is the way many students who have the resources, personal drive, and parental push will approach their goal of getting into one of America’s most elite universities.  Getting into these schools is tough, and this novel understands that a lot of students (and their parents) put years of work and planning into the attempt.  Basically, I found it refreshing to read a YA book that acknowledges that being accepted to a top-ranked school is not necessarily easy or an accident for many high schoolers.

The demon-slaying part of the novel is fun, too, of course.  The author does a nice job of balancing Genie’s “normal” high school life with epic battle scenes where she and her handsome crime fighting partner send evil beings back to Hell.  There is also a good amount of exposition for readers, like me, who may not have read the source material for the mythological aspects, Journey to the West.  (Though personally I did find a bit of the fight scenes drawn out and occasionally skimmed to the point where the demon was properly defeated.)  A bit of romance and some focus on Genie’s relationships with her parents and her friends at school round out the story and make Genie seem like a real person.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is a great choice for readers looking for unique YA that combines contemporary fiction and fantasy.  It’s a bit darker than Sailor Moon, but it has the same balance of real teenagers with “average” teenage concerns who also need to be worried about honing their superpowers and saving the world.

4 stars Briana

Starglass by Phoebe North

Information

Goodreads: Starglass
Series: Starglass #1
Source: Library
Published: 2013

Summary

When Earth died, the Asherah, a spaceship dedicated to preserving the Jewish culture, set sail across the stars to find its inhabitants a new home.  Now they are finally approaching the planet Zehava.  But fifteen-year-old Terra is starting to realize that all is not well aboard the ship.  A secret group of rebels plots to overthrow the Council so they can have more freedoms–the freedom to marry, to choose their own jobs, to have their own babies.  But Terra is torn.  Is she willing to do what it takes to have the rebels accept her as one of their own?

Review

I was excited to read a young adult sci-fi that featured a Jewish community in space since I have not before seen a similar premise.  However, though I wanted to love Starglass, I ultimately found myself disappointed.  Though the book is over 400 pages, it reads like half a story.

The characters are sufficiently likable with fifteen-year-old Terra showing independence and spunk, her boss Mara coming across as a grumpy yet caring and intelligent mentor, and her friend Rachel being just about the best supportive friend ever.  There are also the standard two love interests–friendly but awkward Koen and the handsome and rich Silvan (he hasn’t  much else to recommend him).  However, the character development sometimes felt wanting.  Rachel just disappears for the bulk of the book as Terra forgets about her to pursue boys and deal with her own problems.  And for some reason Koen and Terra seem to like each other and maybe have a little chemistry–until they get serious.  Then suddenly Terra isn’t feeling it anymore and suddenly the author begins dropping hints about his sexuality that weren’t present until the plot needed more drama.

The plot is uneven, with the bulk of the book being about Terra’s apparent desire to join the rebels despite indications that they are probably not much better than the current Council.  Then at the end things start to pick up and we get random twists that don’t always make a lot of sense apparently just to amp up the drama again.  Just when you think you’ve reached the part where the book is finally about something, it ends.  For dramatic purposes.  A random cliffhanger to keep things “interesting.”

Unfortunately, I don’t enjoy reading books that do nothing more than set up the real plot that will then (hopefully) appear in the next installment of the series.  I don’t have current plans to read the sequel.

Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Anstey

Love Lies and SpiesInformation

Goodreads: Love, Lies and Spies
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: April 19, 2016

Official Summary

Juliana Telford is not your average nineteenth-century young lady. She’s much more interested in researching ladybugs than marriage, fashionable dresses, or dances. So when her father sends her to London for a season, she’s determined not to form any attachments. Instead, she plans to secretly publish their research.

Spencer Northam is not the average young gentleman of leisure he appears. He is actually a spy for the War Office, and is more focused on acing his first mission than meeting eligible ladies. Fortunately, Juliana feels the same, and they agree to pretend to fall for each other. Spencer can finally focus, until he is tasked with observing Juliana’s traveling companions . . . and Juliana herself.

Review

Love, Lies and Spies is a cute and fun Regency-inspired romance that adds just a dash of danger to the plot by adding some war-time intrigue.  Protagonist Juliana Telford is insistent she is only interested in attending the London Season in order to sneak away and find a publisher for her and her father’s research on the lady beetle, but a dashing young gentleman might have other plans for her.

The “spies” part of the title could certainly have been played up more.  Northam, to be sure, is working on an important case involving treason for the War Office, but the author took the route of constantly mentioning small details about the case without actually giving an overview of the thing until about page 230.  (Seriously, I looked at the page number to confirm exactly how long it took me to figure out what Northam was trying to do because I spent most of the book confused.) And in the end, I didn’t find it that interesting.  It seemed like a small case and lots of watching and waiting. I’m sure a lot of cases are like that, but it doesn’t necessarily make for exciting writing.

The focus of the novel is primarily on the romance, and I think that if you go in with that expectation, you’ll enjoy the book.   It’s very episodic with lots of wondering of “When shall the protagonist ‘casually’ run into the love interest next?” Lots of scenes of small talk and subtle flirtations, lots of looking forward to and planning the next meeting.  Northam is, indeed, quite romantic and gallant, so watching the romance unfold is likely to be as fun for the readers as it is for Juliana.  There’s some social mingling and commentary as well, but don’t hope for it to be quite on the level of the Jane Austen novels that inspired the story.

The prose is inconsistent and alternately struck me as a good imitation of the Regency period and just off.   When Anstey nails it, she nails it, but Juliana frequently comes across as a simpering little fool based on her awkward dialogue, muttering things like “Oh dear! Oh dear!” and things that sound too stilted for anyone to actually think or say.  The opening chapter may be one of the best examples of this, as it’s amusing and engaging while just seeming wrong.  I laughed while also thinking Juliana absolutely ridiculous and just a little bit…not bright.  She shows her intelligence later in the story, particularly in the area of careful observation, but the things she says often made me question her.

I enjoyed Love, Lies and Spies.  It’s light and entertaining and frequently made me smile. It’s certainly not the best book of intrigue I’ve read, but it’s a cute romance.  Readers who like Regency-era romances will probably want to pick it up.

Note: There is a glossary in the back to help clarify some of the Regency-era expressions. I found most of them self-evident through context clues, but it drives me nuts to struggle through a whole book and only learn there’s a glossary after I’ve finished reading the entire thing, so I thought I’d point it out to other readers. So few books have glossaries that it never occurs to me to check for them before I begin reading, so they tend to be wasted on me.

Briana

The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West by Steve Sheinkin

Information

Goodreads: The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey
Series: Rabbi Harvey #1
Source: Library
Published: July 1, 2006

Official Summary

A fresh look at Jewish folktales wise, witty, hilarious.

After finishing school in New York, Rabbi Harvey traveled west in search of adventure and, hopefully, work as a rabbi. His journey took him to Elk Spring, Colorado, a small town in the Rocky Mountains. When he managed to outwit the ruthless gang that had been ruling Elk Spring, the people invited Harvey to stay on as the town’s rabbi. In Harvey’s adventures in Elk Spring, he settles disputes, tricks criminals into confessing, and offers unsolicited bits of Talmudic insight and Hasidic wisdom. Each story presents Harvey with a unique challenge from convincing a child that he is not actually a chicken, to retrieving stolen money from a sweet-faced bubbe gone bad. Like any good collection of Jewish folktales, these stories contain layers of humor and timeless wisdom that will entertain, teach and, especially, make you laugh.

Review

The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey is a collection of short humorous stories about a rabbi who leaves school and finds a job in small Western town, quickly earning a reputation for wit and wisdom and his ability to fairly judge any case put before  him.  This background is necessary for the book because Rabbi Harvey’s history is explained only in one of the stories in the middle of the book; if you’re a reader who likes to go into books “blind” without reading the jacket summary, you might be confused, because there’s no introduction; the book simply opens with a story and goes from there.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book, but I found it an entertaining collection of amusing, clever tales.  It was in the YA section of my local library, but I think it works well as an upper middle grade book, too, and the brand of humor is something I think could resonate with many middle schoolers.  The stories are not laugh-out-loud funny (at least in my opinion), but they’re quirky and amusing, and it’s great fun to watch Rabbi Harvey answer riddles and out-think others.

The combination of a Jewish community and a Wild West setting is a great one.  I’ve seen some other reviewers express skepticism of this, but I honestly never questioned it, and the book works really well.  There’s a nice combination of Western grit with traditional tales and wisdom, and I don’t think readers need to be particularly interested in either the Wild West or Judaism to enjoy the book.

This was a random find for me at the library. I checked it out because it just seemed so unexpected.  A graphic novel about a fictional rabbi just walking around being clever?  But after reading it, I will definitely be recommending it to others.

4 stars Briana

Starfall by Melissa Landers

Starfall by Melissa Landers

Information

Goodreads: Starfall
Series: Starflight #2
Source: City Book Review
Published: February 7, 2017

Official Summary

When Princess Cassia Rose fled her home world of Eturia to escape an arranged marriage, she had no idea her sudden departure would spark a war. Now after two years hiding as a ship hand, she is finally returning to her beloved home, but not in the way she imagined. Shackled by bounty hunters, she is violently dragged back to account for her crimes. Her only solace is that the Banshee crew managed to evade capture, including Kane Arric, her best friend…with occasional benefits.

Meanwhile, Kane and the rest of the crew of the Banshee plan a desperate rescue mission. But when they arrive on Eturia, Cassia isn’t exactly in need of heroics—she’s claimed her birthright as Eturia’s queen, but has inherited a war-torn planet simmering with rebellion. Cassia must make alliances, and Kane, the bastard son of a merchant, isn’t a choice that will earn her any friends. Kane knows he will never find someone to replace Cassia—and is certain she returns his feelings—but how can he throw away his own promising future waiting on a queen?

When the outer realm is threatened by the dangerous Zhang mafia, Cassia, Kane and the rest of the Banshee crew uncover a horrifying conspiracy that endangers the entire universe. In the face of unspeakable evil, Cassia must confront her own family’s complicated legacy on Eturia and decide once and for all who her real family is.

Review

I read and reviewed Starflight in January 2016, so I was hesitant when I began reading Starfall that I wouldn’t remember the plot, the characters, or really any necessary information to get back into the story. However, I dove right in and picked up enough to follow the story right away; Landers also does a nice job of referring to past events to prompt readers’ memories.  The plot picks up basically where it left off, although the points of view switch to two new characters.

After getting situated, I fell in love with the story right away.  The book is action-packed, featuring a runaway princess, space pirates, the mafia, and a civil war.  While I sometimes get bored with books where the characters are travelling through space for a long period of time, I found there was always something to keep my interest up in Starfall.

The characters are complex and well-developed. Cassia occasionally irritated me, but she has a big heart and a lot of strength.  She stands up for herself and what she believes in.  The love interest, Kane, also has a rich personality, and he goes through a lot of development over the course of the book.  Favorite characters from Starflight return, and a few more are introduced.

I admit this may not be the most original books I have ever read. A lot of space books I read seem to have much in common (or, I should say, the ones that occur predominantly on a space ship and not on some imagined colonized planet), and I did note the similarities of Starflight to Stitching Snow when I first read it.  However, this series is fun. I enjoyed the plot and the characters and overall had a good time reading it. Recommended.

4 stars Briana